Holt Grieve Donald Land Speculation

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“LAND SPECULATION AND OTHER PROCESSES IN AMERICAN HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY” Donald G. Holtgrieve The Journal of Geography January 1976 From the time that William Bradford and the rest of the Mayflower crew beheld the American continent until the present, when their descendants sometimes gloomly survey it, much has happened. To say the place has changed is an understatement and to conclude it is a product of the “march of history” or “progress” is an oversimplification. “America is process” seems to
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  “LAND SPECULATION AND OTHER PROCESSESIN AMERICAN HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY”Donald G. Holtgrieve The Journal of Geography January 1976From the time that William Bradford and the rest of the Mayflower crew beheld theAmerican continent until the present, when their descendants sometimes gloomly survey it, muchhas happened. To say the place has changed is an understatement and to conclude it is a productof the “march of history” or “progress” is an oversimplification. “America is process” seems tobe the most applicable cliché. While narcissistic self-examinations of the nation will be plentifulthis year, perhaps it is appropriate that process rather than events, personalities, or evenenvironmental conditions should receive our attention. Thus, this essay attempts to identify thosehistorical-geographic processes in American development that have given the United States itsdistinctive characteristics. CULTURAL HISTORICAL-GEOGRAPHIC PROCESSES What, then, has taken place in mid-latitude North America continuously over the last two orthree hundred years? Which processes (defined here as continua of similar events) have made thelandscape of the United States what it is today? Five are suggested here.The first continuous process in changing the face of the continent is the removal of its formeroccupants. The story of the acculturation and oftentimes elimination of American Indians needslittle elaboration in view of the documentation and narrative already available in quantity. 1 Themappable waves of disease, resource extraction, and socio-legal discrimination in the eighteenthand nineteenth centuries represent a process of removal as efficient as the swipe of a hand acrossa poker table. 2  The second major geographic process is also a story retold sometimes at the expense of truth.The subduing of the wilderness in myth and media often over glamorizes the universal andcontinuous surgery that the continent has experienced since the colonial period. 3 The cuttingedge of this operation was and is the frontier, real or perceived. 4 The process is often portrayed 1 The most sensitive historian of the Indian removal is probably Wilbur R. Jacobs. See “The Indian and the Frontierin American History—A Need for Revision,” Western Historical Quarterly (January 1973): 43-56 and  Dispossessing the American Indian: Indians and Whites on the Colonial Frontier  (New York: Scribner, 1972). Theimpact of the Judeo-Christian ethic upon the Indians is analyzed in “An Indian Plea to Churches,”  Los AngelesTimes , 6 February 1972. Another popular source is Dee Brown,  Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (New York: Holt,Rinehart, and Winston, 1971). 2 Even though they are mappable, few maps of same have been drawn. Maps of Indian land cessions were made byCharles C. Royce in “Indian Land Cessions in the United States,”  Bureau of American Ethnology, Eighteenth Annual Report  (Washington, 1899). 3 Semipopular reading on the subject includes: Lynn T. White, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science (10 March 1967): 1203-6; Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind  (New Haven, 1967); andHans Huth,  Nature and the American: Three Centuries of Changing Attitudes (Berkeley: University of CaliforniaPress, 1957). 4 One cannot discuss the American frontier without having read Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay, “The Frontier inAmerican History,” first presented before a session of the American Historical Association in 1898. It has beenreprinted several times in books and journals and has inspired an avalanche of commentary that continues today.  more vividly in literature and folklore than in the scholarly works of historians. We are all “Sonsof the Pioneers” even though most Americans were never near the frontier.The frontier was where the action was. Subduing the wilderness on the frontier includedentering an area, building homes, clearing and planting, using pristine resources, launchingtowns, carrying on trade, introducing industry, and establishing settlement patterns. The frontierpermitted several subprocesses to work in developing American culture, some of which are listedby Wilbur Zelinsky: 5 (1) the selection of individual or cultural traits; (2) the transfer of peopleand their cultural freight over long distances—a fact which had the effect of weakeningcomponents of the group culture and at the same time making new components easier to adopt;(3) the bor-rowing of cultural traits from the Amerindians; (4) the evolution of American culturethrough pure chance, interchange with the habitat, socioeconomic processes, and spatialreshuffling—.all of which created the beginnings of distinct regions identifiable in spatial andtemporal contexts; and (5) the connection of the frontier with the rest of the globe despiteproblems of transportation and communication.This notion of national culture, or national character if you will, is, then, a product of theAmerican wilderness experience, direct or vicarious. 6 The processes of hunting, clearing land,building roads, and mining the earth suggest pioneer characteristics such as self reliance,individualism, thrift, pragmatism, and the work ethic. These are traits we often ascribe to ourheroes and to ourselves. They are national characteristics that both Jefferson and Turnerattributed to American uniqueness. It can be shown that these traits contributed to theestablishment of distinctive regional settlement patterns, such as those of New England, the CornBelt, and the Mormon region.The frontier experience also spawned the American extractive mentality. Our infant colonialeconomy was based on nature’s harvest and domestication of the natural landscape continued theprocess. Carl Sauer suggested years ago that the United States is one of the most used upcountries on the globe. 7 Expansive utilization of resources is detailed elsewhere in this issue of  The Journal of Geography . Let it be sufficient to suggest that the frontier experience, thesubjugation of the wilderness, and the utilization of resources are intertwined experiences thathave left their marks on our national consciousness. They cannot be separated from one anotheror from the heritage of almost any region, however small, in our country.A third major geographic-historical process, urbanization, is also described elsewhere in thisissue. The process of urbanization has been continual, is of major proportions, and has affectedthe visual landscapes and spatial patterns of the entire nation. 8 In addition, the record of several Material dealing with Turner’s geography is citied in D. G. Holtgrieve, “Frederick Jackson Turner As aRegionalist,” Professional Geographer  (May 1974): 159-65. The most complete and readable frontier history is RayA. Billington’s Westward Expansion , 3 rd ed. (New York: Macmillan Co., 1967). 5 Wilbur Zelinsky, The Cultural Geography of the United States (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1973), pp.5-9. This long-awaited masterpiece is a treasure of ideas about the historical-cultural development of the UnitedStates. See especially its annotated bibliography for a possible lifetime of further study. 6 A fine collection of essays dealing with the character of Americans is a book by that title edited by MichaelMcGiffert (Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1970). See also John Gillin, “National and Regional Cultural Values inthe United States,” Social Forces (December 1955): 107-13. 7 Carl O. Sauer, “Theme of Plant and Animal Destruction in Economic History,” in  Land and Life: A Selection fromthe Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer  , ed. John Leighly (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969), p. 148. 8 The volume of material on American urban growth is overwhelming, but John R. Borchert, “AmericanMetropolitan Evolution,” Geographical Review (July 1967): 301-22; Lewis Mumford, The City in History (NewYork: Harcourt Brace, 1968); and Howard Nelson, “Town Founding and the American Frontier,” Yearbook  ,  American subcultures cannot be understood without consideration of the urban setting.Urbanization, through its secondary effects, has touched even remote areas. The creation of amarket for agricultural and other products has sometimes dictated the activities and land uses of rural areas. The development of transportation nets between and within cities has linked allAmericans to the urban complex.A fourth major process traceable to colonial srcins and still active (perhaps hyperactive)today is our national quest for efficiency. It is reflected in our architecture, our economic systemof production and consumption, and even in our recreational habits. But nowhere is this quest forthe efficient more evident than in our transport systems (current AMTRAK schedulingnotwithstanding). The saying that “time is money” can easily be extended to read that distance istime, which is money, which in turn is a function of efficiency.Migration and mobility, George Pierson’s M factor, if seen in a historical perspective, canalso be termed a function of our traditional quest for efficiency. The example of migration tolabor centers is self-evident. Migrations to other kinds of opportunities and the places theyrepresent are quests for a more efficient (successful) place in society or nature. The forcedmigrations of black slaves are perhaps the best examples of human movement as the price forefficiency. Vertical mobility might also be considered a function of someone’s perception of theright order of things. Even the notion of change itself has been reflected in the American scene.David Lowenthal has presented a shopping list of examples, identifiable in almost any Americancommunity, of places that visually equate change, progress, and efficiency. 9  Efficiency in the American context often Includes expeditious profit making, and whenprofits are made on land, a fifth historical-geographic process in nation making comes to thefore—land speculation. Indeed, it may be that the single most important process in understandingthe settlement geography of the United States involves the obtaining, holding, and selling of landas a commodity. In no other place has so much land changed ownership so many times over sucha short period of time. Nowhere else has the exchange of land molded the destinies of provinces,states, cities, and large populations. Nowhere else has Mother Earth been more dissected onsurveyors’ maps and in commodity exchanges than in the United States. Since this fifth processalso seems to be the least discussed among geographers, it is given some detail in the paragraphsthat follow. 10   LAND SPECULATION AS A MAJOR FORCEIN AMERICAN DEVELOPMENT The new world, from its old world discovery, was a speculation to its explorers, its firstcolonists, and the kings who sponsored both. All looked upon the new world as a source of  Association of Pacific Coast Geographers (1974), pp. 7-23 are suggested as places to start if the reader has notalready done so. 9 David Lowenthal, “The American Scene,” Geographical Review (January 1968): 61-68. 10 Standard descriptions of the American land tenure system, the acquisition and disposal of the public domain, andspeculation that resulted therefrom are in Vernon Carstensen, ed., The Public Lands: Studies in the History of thePublic Domain (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1963) Marion Clawson, The Land System of theUnited States: An Introduction to the History and Practice of Land Use and Land Tenure (Lincoln, Nebr.:University of Nebraska Press, 1964); Benjamin H. Hibbard,  A History of the Public Land Policies (Madison, Wis.:University of Wisconsin Press, 1965); Roy Robbins, Our Landed Heritage: The Public Domain, 1776-1936   (Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith Co. 1960); and Aaron M. Sakolski, The Great American Land Bubble (New York:Harper & Row, reprinted 1966).  riches in minerals, furs, fish, and agricultural abundance, supported by the greater resource of land. The land speculator, as Paul Wallace Gates puts it, was as characteristic of the pioneerWest “as was the circuit rider, the rail splitter, or the surveyor, and he transcended them all inshaping its land and social patterns.” 11 In Ray Allen Billington’s Westward Expansion , landspeculation is mentioned 52 times throughout all chronological time periods and fills 93 pages. 12  Such national historic figures as Washington, Franklin, Patrick Henry, Daniel Webster, JohnFremont, and Stephen Austin were active land dealers on no small scale.During the first hundred years of the colonial period, land was abundant and labor scarce, soland speculation was not common. Most colonists came to North America for free land, becauseland was unavailable to them in the old world. 13 However, when the mercantile system uponwhich the colonial economy was based became sufficiently successful to demand more land, thewestward movement began. It was British policy to convey unoccupied lands to privatecompanies or individuals who undertook their management, settlement, and resale. As peoplebegan to fill accessible regions within the colonial charter, the acquisition of large, unsettledtracts for monetary gain became more popular. 14 British policy was unable to keep settlers on theeast side of frontier proclamation lines, and several major sections of colonial Virginia, NewEngland, New York, Pennsylvania, and the Ohio country were being subdivided by speculatorsby 1775. The great American land rush was underway even before the Revolution. 15  Upon the founding of the new American Republic, one of the first problems faced by thegovernment was the formulation of a land settlement policy. Hamilton’s plan was to gather quick returns even if speculators would also profit greatly from land sales. Jefferson, on the other hand,recommended a free or low-priced land policy to make available small parcels for the benefit of the small farmer. 16 The Jefferson ideal was never realized. Costs of transportation to the frontier;costs of tools and equipment; sometimes adverse political, religious, or ethnic opinions; and theneed for the new government to raise revenue all worked against the possibility that the poormigrant settler from the city would ever get “free” land.Culminating in a frantic land boom in 1836, town jobbing and other forms of speculativeactivity were rampant from Maine to Texas, but particularly in the Old Northwest after theordinances of 1784, 1785, and 1787. Between 1830 and 1837 cities appeared on maps and in theminds of investors on an unprecedented scale. Here raged “Michigan fever,” as land speculationin the Northwest Territory was called. Also not to be ignored were timberland speculations inMaine, town jobbing in Louisiana, and wholesale American settlement in Texas.The first half of the nineteenth century was characterized by continuing struggles betweensettlers and land speculators over the terms of federal land sales. The speculator favored largeparcels near developed or populated areas, whereas the settler asked for small parcels at lowprices near the frontier. Both were accommodated through a series of land laws and policies thatcan be listed only partially here. These laws and policies included warrants for military service, 11 Paul Wallace Gates, “Land Policy and Tenancy in the Prairie States,”  Journal of Economic History (January1941): 60-82. Gates, an acknowledged national expert in land speculation processes, has compiled most of his ideasin a new book,  Landlords and Tenants on the Prairie Frontier: Studies in Land Policy (Ithaca, N.Y.: CornellUniversity, 1973). 12 Billington, Westward Expansion . 13 Sakolski, Great American Land Bubble , p. 2 and Clawson,  Land System , p. 14. 14    Ibid  . 15 Billington, Westward Expansion , pp. 144-47. 16 Gates, “Land Policy”: 62, 72 and Mark Irving, “The Homestead Ideal and Conservation of the Public Domain,”  American Journal of Economics and Sociology 22 (1963): 263.
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